“I’m breaking a taboo coming to Israel, but I’m not the first Egyptian to do so,” said Maikel Nabil Sanad, a political activist and blogger who was jailed and tortured for 302 days for criticizing the Egyptian army post-Mubarak. He was pardoned by the Egyptian military in January 2012 following international pressure and efforts of several different human rights organizations including UN Watch.
During his first visit to Israel organized by the Geneva-based NGO, UN Watch, Maikel Sanad was warmly received by Hebrew University’s Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace on Sunday, December 23.
Described as a peace-building mission, Sanad’s visit to the Holy Land sparked a myriad of responses.
Speaking to the Israeli and Arabic press in English and Arabic, before the open lecture to Hebrew University students, Sanad stated that he would like to see Israel exist in the Middle East but that Israel had to build initiatives and approach peace activists like himself.
“I would like to see Israel coexist in the Middle East,” said the self-described pro-Israel dissident who was the first political prisoner in post-revolution Egypt. “The majority of my people don’t want war with Israel.” But he was sharply critical of Israel over settlement building and Palestinian Arab rights.
“It’s amazing to see that people like Sanad exist,” said Orit Sulitzean, the spokeswoman for Hebrew University to Tazpit News Agency. “There is a thirst and hunger among Israelis to learn more about our southern neighbor,” added Hebrew University Professor Eli Podch.
Others were significantly less happy. When Sanad spoke to the large audience at Hebrew University, stating that in order for peace to take hold in the Middle East, he believes that nationalism would have to end, a group of Israeli-Arab students shouted the speaker down. “Shame on you!” and “Don’t speak about Nasser” they yelled in English at Sanad and at the frustrated audience, who wanted to hear the Egyptian blogger speak.
During the talk, Sanad also offered his historical perspective on Egypt, and spoke about the Egyptian Jewish community, which numbered 80,000 until 1954 when Egyptian nationalist, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s took over the country. “Before Nasser’s coup d’etat, all religions in Egypt coexisted peacefully during the country’s 30 years of democracy from 1923-1952,” he emphasized.
Sanad belongs to the Egyptian Coptic community, also known as Copts, who are native Christians of Egypt and have been severely oppressed by the Egyptian government. The Copts face such obstacles as government restrictions on church building and hate crimes in the form of physical assaults and property destruction by Muslims. Many Copts have been forced to flee Egypt.
Today, Sanad lives in Germany where he is pursuing a master’s degree in public diplomacy. He says that he is an atheist who doesn’t believe in any religion.
“In Egypt, I am considered crazy for my beliefs,” Sanad said. The 27-year-old Egyptian is a conscientious objector and pacifist, who was recruited to serve in the Egyptian army for three years and refused. Sanad said he was exempted because army examiners deemed him mentally unstable.
“Egyptian leadership’s belief that Israel is our eternal enemy says something about their mental stability,” pointed out Sanad.
“I’m here to say that I care about the future and that we should not have pay for the mistakes of our fathers and grandfathers,” said Sanad. “I am not an elected official and I don’t represent Egypt, but I am against an Islamic dictatorship under Morsi and I consider Hamas and Hezbollah terrorist organizations.”
An Associated Press reporter who interviewed Sanad right after he was released from jail in Egypt in January of this year, told Tazpit News Agency that Sanad “doesn’t represent the typical protester of the Egyptian street.”
“People wonder why the Muslim Brotherhood is in power because people like Maikal Sanad stood out during the revolution,” she said. “Sanad, however, represents maybe less than one percent of Egypt. He and the other peace activists are educated, speak fluent English, and are photogenic. Foreign journalists could easily follow their Twitter posts and blogs. But by basing their information from Egyptian peace activists, many foreign journalists created this false impression that Egypt was heading towards peace and freedom.”
The AP reporter who lived in Egypt during the post-war revolution, said that reality on the ground was far different from the peace sentiments on Twitter. “Egypt is a mess today,” she concludes. “And the average Egyptian is in the same position today as he was before the revolution, maybe even worse.”